| Gainesville Sun
The University of Florida couldn’t even keep its football team on the field due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Now the UF administration is trying to force faculty to return to face-to-face classes next semester despite the health risks.
UF has held most classes remotely this semester, with exceptions for laboratory classes and other courses that can’t be conducted online. But UF President Kent Fuchs announced Oct. 9 that the university would “significantly increase the opportunity for students to experience in-person, face-to-face learning” in the upcoming spring semester.
UF’s college deans have been told to plan for as many face-to-face sections next semester as were held during the same time last year. But in-person attendance is expected to be limited to meet social distancing guidelines by using HyFlex classes that blend in-person teaching and online instruction — the same method that has caused problems for teachers and students in Alachua County public schools this fall.
A petition that calls UF’s plan “both poorly conceived and reckless” has been signed by more than 3,200 faculty, staff and students. At a news conference Tuesday, faculty members and graduate students said the administration was kowtowing to political pressure from the state without any transparency about the decision.
At a time when UF is considering employee furloughs, Fuchs has said that in-person classes would provide the best opportunity for the university “to retain full funding.” The Board of Governors that oversees state universities has said face-to-face classes are only strongly encouraged, leading critics to question whether UF’s move is being influenced by Gov. Ron DeSantis as he pushes for Florida to fully reopen.
While young people are at lower risk for the most serious health consequences of COVID-19, outbreaks among college students risk infecting their professors and others in our community who are more vulnerable. In the month after UF’s fall semester started, more than 1,600 people in the 18- to 24-year-old age group tested positive for the virus in Alachua County.
UF’s football team had to reschedule two games due to at least 25 coronavirus cases on the team last week, including Coach Dan Mullen. Mullen previously called for UF to follow DeSantis’ reopening directives and allow full capacity at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, before backtracking.
Amid a backlash over Mullen’s initial comments, Fuchs said on social media that UF was committed to following guidance from health experts about the occupancy of athletic venues as well as classrooms. But the plan for face-to-face classes seems more like a political or financial decision than one based on the best advice of health experts.
UF’s plan is indeed poorly conceived. An abrupt shift to HyFlex classes will likely cause a worse learning environment for both in-person and online students. The input of faculty members is being ignored and the administration is making it difficult for them to get permission to teach only online classes, even if they fall in vulnerable populations.
A third wave of cases is already underway across the country, with colder weather and the accompanying cold and flu season expected to fuel further increases. UF should be preparing the best plan to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus and throughout our community, not bowing to political pressure in a premature bid to make things appear like they are back to normal.